Can writing a story ruin it?
I think so. There are some tales better left to bubble up by chance orally, when the same people who experienced an event — or heard about it — recall it together.
You’ve seen this happen. It usually starts with “Do you remember that time when Uncle Tommy ended up …”
Eyes light up. Everyone starts talking at once. Some rush to the best parts first. Some try to act out the crazy parts. They argue over details. They shout that their memory is the best.
Some insist they know exactly what happened even if they were not there and heard the story second- or thirdhand. Kinda like the Bible, maybe.
Or all religion?
I’ve watched and heard the story of Uncle Tommy and the Potato Gun told many times, and enjoyed them all. So why write it?
First, I owe Tommy one. He once threw me out of a swimming pool on my head.
Also, like a couple of those questionable Bible stories, this potato story is starting to morph and mutate. It needs to be documented.
The last time I saw Tommy, he was trying to weasel out of some of the more embarrassing parts.
I was a key witness to this one though, so I’m going to take on this responsibility. Call this Uncle Tommy and the Potato Gun, Book of the Spud, (chapter 3, verse 4) Disciple Dave’s First Epistle to the Monongahelians.
First thing: You need to have a picture of Tommy in your mind, know a bit about him.
Some of his old nicknames: Saber-tooth Tiger Tom (dental issue) Algit Kabomb (some old cartoon character I couldn’t find with Google) and many others describing mental capacity or incapacity that have long ago become politically incorrect.
He loves his kids and nieces and nephews, especially when he can make them laugh.
He and other concertgoers once jumped off a high steel bridge in Pittsburgh (nicknamed the Bridge to Nowhere) because it took so long to finish) into a wide old river. They made the 11 o’clock news.
As I mentioned, for no apparent reason one summer, Tommy threw me backwards out of a small swimming pool even though I was his partner in Chicken Fights. Asked why, he shrugged.
His five brothers say to never fight with him. He does not register pain, and will never give up. They once heaved him through a plate glass living room window in their home. My wife, their babysitter, locked him out, more concerned about what he would do back inside than whether he was hurt.
OK, that covers Tommy.
Now, you also need to have a picture in your mind of Luke, the builder of the potato gun.
Our oldest son, he is very smart and has always liked to blow things up.
His mom’s brothers, some of whom occasionally and proudly transform from uncles to drunkles, teased Luke mercilessly when he was very young.
Luke loves science in part because it has helped him blow up stuff. He once cut off the heads of a gazillion wooden matches, stuffed them through a slit in a tennis ball, taped up the slit and made this really cool looking swirly, sizzling, exploding mini-fire ball like a special effect in a Star Wars movie.
He made his first potato gun when he was about 8.
Like Tommy, Luke also loves to make little kids laugh, especially if that involves embarrassing any or all of his numerous uncles.
When I was a young father, during all the interactions between my five kids and the drunkles, I took on the role of security guard or safety officer. Maybe bouncer is the best term.
But, by the time of this story all the kids were adults and my role had diminished. I was less like the cop with the Taser and more like one of those flashing neon road signs that says: “Drive only in marked lanes.”
Did you ever fire a potato gun? A big one? The kind that sends a full-size potato hurtling?
That’s the kind Luke built years and years ago, with my help.
It was about 8 feet long and made of PVC pipe, most of it about 2 inches in diameter. Think medium-sized drain pipe, which is thicker than most professional baseball players’ bats. One of the coolest things about the gun is the fuel, the stuff that makes the explosion to send the potato flying. It’s just regular ol’ hair spray.
You unscrew the top of a Y-shaped PVC part, spray the hair spray in there, quickly close it, make sure the barrel isn’t pointing at anyone, hit the trigger (an igniter like those used on a propane grill) and the hunk of potato you have stuffed into the open barrel rockets away, more than a hundred yards — usually.
I personally credit our gun with helping at least three of my kids become better baseball and softball players. They would stand at least a football field away from me and Luke (usually I also had the baby, Adam) and we would fire potatoes their way, sky-high, so they could try to catch them with baseball gloves.
Talk about a twisty turning fly ball. Those potatoes took some nasty loops and swirls in mid-air. Catching a real baseball was a piece of cake after that.
Of course, with any kind of explosive device, something can go wrong, which is why I insisted on wielding my full bouncer powers.
But, on this particular day, the day of Uncle Tommy and the Potato Gun, my only job was to shoo away anyone younger than 5 who appeared to have no responsible parent nearby.
I don’t recall whose idea it was to fire the gun, but I do know that some of the younger cousins had never seen one and were intrigued.
“C’mon you guys. It’s getting dark. You said this would be cool.”
The crowd was getting restless and Luke, or someone, had promised pyrotechnics. Luke had taken over logistics at this point, and Tommy was still in the house, unaware of what was happening out on grandma’s patio.
That back patio, in suburban Pittsburgh, had a wooded hilly expanse behind it. Though not the best spot, the patio had been commandeered as a launching area, and at least six kids and at least that many adults now wanted a payoff for time spent waiting.
Everyone seemed to have a thought on why the first couple launches fizzled out. Luke busily and efficiently fixed leaks and called for more hair spray. That’s when Uncle Tommy sauntered outside.
“Oh-oh, a spud gun,” he said, lighting a cigarette. “Let me do it.”
Luke, as was his typical approach with his uncles now that he was bigger and stronger than them, ignored Tommy until he thought of a demeaning comeback. Something like: “Why don’t you go stand over there and I’ll shoot your cigarette out of your lips.”
Then, Luke shouted “Stand back” but it was another misfire. A potato flew low, plopping only about 15 feet away onto the grass. It was hard to see, because the sun was now set.
“You’re a dork, Luke. This is dumb, because you’re not going to be able to see it,” Tommy said.
I suggested smearing lightning bugs all over the next potato, as Luke, ignoring everyone, realized there was still a leak, probably near the igniter, that hadn’t been sealed.
Tommy, standing by the lawn mover someone had failed to put away, started gesticulating and saying one word, over and over and over: Gas.
Now trying to flex myself back into full bouncer mode, I tried to talk over Tommy, changing the subject. But too many people heard him. And, Tommy was already unscrewing the cap to the gas can, still with his cigarette in his lips.
Dumb. Stupid. Dangerous. Cool. Exciting. “I’m telling Grandma,” one of the littlest, more nervous children threatened.
But the gas-potato-pyro idea had caught on. Tommy poured gas on a couple of the fattest spuds, not caring or oblivious to how much he was spilling on his hands and shoes.
I continued to lecture Luke on how he really wanted no part of this one, and, with images of hair afire and everyone screaming “Stop, Drop and Roll,” I scoured the crowd for those littlest kids to corral.
Now, it was really getting dark. The first launch proved that the vacuum chamber with the hair spray worked. Schwooooop! We presumed something flew into the night sky. Someone said they a blue flume above us. We didn’t hear anything hit the ground.
“More gas,” was all Tommy said.
I shouted that we really didn’t want it to hit the woods hundreds of yards away. We didn’t want to start a forest fire. We needed to aim a little more vertical.
I reminded how close we were to the airport.
Yup, just like one of those flashing road signs. Ignored.
I moved the gas can to the side of the house, trying to hide it behind a lawn chair.
Everyone looked up. I pushed my crowd of littler ones under a porch overhang and stood beside Tommy, secretly hoping for a fiery potato rocket streaking above us. Hands on his hips, Tommy looked up, waited, looked down and then looked defeated.
No streak in the sky. No Tommy’s Comet. No fireworks show today.
Kids disappointed. Not even the thud of the spud landing somewhere. Lots of groaning.
Then, a much louder groan. More like a wince.
And a very odd sound, like someone slapping away a wasp trying to sting. A big wasp.
I also felt a spray, and smelled gas. Time to move away from stinky Tommy, who was no longer standing.
Bent to his knees, he asked me why I punched him.
As he looked up at me, there was just enough light from the porch lamp to see the welt forming on his forehead, and the rainbowy reflection of oil. In his hair and near his ear was what like shredded potato au gratin.
He swiped at the injury, gassy hands now spreading the fuel near his eyes. He stood holding his head but then started flapping his hands, realizing he was adding, well, fuel to the fire of the potato that had just returned to earth to whack him in the head.
I fell to my knees, unable to even laugh, just wheeze. I couldn’t even share the news with the others. After they saw me fall to the floor in laughter, though, they began to realize what happened. At least a half dozen of us lay on the floor paralyzed by the poetic justice of the potato hitting the protagonist. Some curled into fetal positions. Even Luke, who had perfected stoicism in order to never let his uncles think they did anything cool.
Tommy still couldn’t figure out why — or if — I had punched him. The welt was bigger now, but he could walk and talk.
One of my daughters, still doubled over, tried to get back in the house to tell those inside to get out to the patio to witness this ridiculous Three Stooges-like scene. She remembers “trying to climb up the basement steps into the main floor of the house to tell people to come outside and see what happened. .. Was Scott there with me on the steps? Alex maybe? Adam?”
“But I was laughing so hard on the way that I couldn’t really convey the story properly to Grandma up there or several aunts.”
Every time I started to recover from my laughing fit, I imagined Tommy as Mr. Potato Head with the potato from the gun knocking his plastic eyebrows kerflewy, or bouncing his brown ears off his bumpy oblong head.
The injury proved minor. The embarrassment was major. And it was time to rub it in.
Unfortunately, Tommy is humiliation-proof. He just went back to his beer, giggling and looking at the potato gun, contemplating a new approach.
Everyone who could talk screamed “No!”
I asked Luke to please put the gun away, hide it, get rid of it quickly.
I asked the kids if anyone else got hit with anything. I looked around for small brush fires.
Then, seeing Tommy still rubbing at his eyes, I grabbed the lighter. I thought about asking: “Hey genius. Want another cigarette? I’ll light it for ya.”
But, the journalist in my decided instead to ask everyone what they saw, to get the moment embedded in their memories. I knew right then that this tale would be told again and again.
At least two years later, during one such oral recounting, Tommy seemed surprised we were still talking about the potato. He did not understand why this was still, sorry for the pun, seared, in so many memories but not his. He asked:
“We used gas? That was probably Luke’s idea, right?”
Then, reminded of some details, he had the gall to ask: “What do you mean the potato hit me. I just remember …”
Get the picture? See what he’s trying to do? I could’a predicted it. I’m way ahead of him, though.
Who ya gonna believe?
A trouble-making uncle who still, if you look closely, has a knot in the shape of a spud on his forehead?
Or, Dave the Disciple and all those Monongahelians?